Sosnowice (Poland) Auschwitz, Flossenbürg
The youngest of nine children, Stanislaw Strzalkowski was born in 1917 in Sosnowice, Poland, to a fairly well-off family. He recalls that his tightly-knit Roman Catholic family never harbored any overt prejudice against Jewish people, only commenting occasionally on what they perceived as the overabundance of Jews in certain skilled professions. In school, where he says different children got along well, he nevertheless recalls derogatory conversations about “those Jews.” The only major discrimination he remembers hearing about before 1939 was the assignment of quarters to Jewish students in the universities (although he questions whether it actually occurred or whether it was just a wish expressed by the Polish people, who claimed that there were too many Jewish students in universities). He remembers an atmosphere in which, far from being written off as subhuman, Jewish people were slightly resented for their collective achievements.
After receiving his high school diploma, he studied at the Polish army’s officer’s academy, finishing in 1935 and joining the Polish army as a first lieutenant. He spent two winters stationed in Auschwitz, instructing officers in his regiment, in a building in which he would eventually be a prisoner. One of his assignments in the army was to escort Jewish soldiers to synagogue, an experience he describes as pleasantly eye-opening. The news of persecution trickling out from Germany shocked him and many of his fellow officers, and at the same time as anti-Jewish feelings crescendoed in Poland, he recalls that sympathy for the Jewish people rose as well. Not all of his fellow soldiers agreed, though, and as a platoon commander he witnessed much heckling of Jewish soldiers. After the German invasion in September 1939, when his company surrendered and was taken captive, his German captors began to separate Jewish soldiers from the mass. Strzalkowski vocally condemned any ill-treatment of his regiment as a violation of the Geneva Convention, and his captors finally called off the round-up.
After being hospitalized for minor infections, he managed to escape captivity with refugee papers and civilian clothing. On the trek back to Sosnowice, he found one of his sisters working in a hospital, and returned with her. In Sosnowice, he was sworn in as a member of the underground Polish Home Army; chosen for his knowledge of the area, he was able to recommend new recruits. He was relocated to another nearby area (Olkusz) after some of his associates were arrested. In 1941, after being told that his name was already known to the Gestapo, he crossed the border of occupied Poland and continued working in Krakow, where he organized officer training courses for the Polish Home Army and was arrested in 1943. In jail, despite harsh treatment, he denied any hand in subversive activities and maintained a false name.
After several months, the interrogations ended, but he was sent to Auschwitz for four months (two in quarantine and two in camp). After quarantine, he worked in the laundry, until he was sent to live in the bunker his platoon had once been in. Next to the bunker was a building in which he says Jewish girls were medically experimented on. He experienced some immunity because of distinguishing marks given to him on his uniform, but Jews, marked with Stars of David, endured beatings, gassings, and forced labor in crematoriums in which they would eventually die. While prisoners were allowed to receive packages, Strzalkowski does not recall any Jewish prisoners getting any. Of the many inmates at Auschwitz – criminals, political prisoners, Gypsies, and Jews – he saw the Jews receive the worst treatment. One couldn’t be punished for killing Jewish inmates, he says; one could only be punished for stealing their bread.
Concentration camp was a numbing experience. He describes one instance in which a dying man lay on the bathroom floor and other prisoners continued to wash over him as though nothing were happening. He says that a beating evoked some emotion but that as soon as a fellow prisoner was dead there was little point in caring anymore. Even the shock of learning that Jews were being gassed, he says, attenuated with time. He believes that Auschwitz exposed the evil in everyone.
From Auschwitz he was sent to Flossenburg, where he and other prisoners were forced to transport heavy stones. Summary executions were a common occurrence. One inmate, a Jewish prisoner, was aware of Strzalkowski’s true identity. One day, the man was singled out and beaten viciously for two hours. Instead of using his knowledge as a bargaining chip, he told Strzalkowski, when his beating ended, that he was going to make a suicidal run for it. He did. As Strzalkowski remembers it, he threw down his stone and ran toward a guard; when he didn’t halt, he was shot.
According to Strzalkowski, for unexplainable reasons, the beatings and the summary executions stopped the next day. He feels that, in his acquaintance, the Jewish nation had a hero.
When the war ended, he served as a company commander in the Polish guard company with the American army, in the American sector of occupied Germany. Even after the war, he says that his fellow Polish Home Army officers were tortured and thrown in jail alongside the S.S. and Gestapo officers as treasonous. He has returned to Poland only twice, in 1966 and in 1994. When asked to summarize his thoughts and feelings into one caveat for future generations, he says that absolute power corrupts absolutely – in essence, that dictators must never be allowed to come into power again.
Date: May 11, 1994
Length: 1 hour 42 minutes
Interviewer: Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig
Synopsis: Rachel Resin
Format: Video Recording